Note: this list is continually edited and will change over time.
Spending time on social media or reading the news, I am struck by the negative outlook most people hold for the future of the planet. Survey data seem to agree with this observation. This is in sharp contrast to the spectacular improvements in the quantity and quality of human life across the globe for decades.
Optimism is an important value for me, and I believe spreading an optimistic outlook is key to encouraging progress in our society. As a remedy to the problem of pessimism in wealthy countries, I am maintaining a list of major innovations which, if successful, will dramatically improve our society.
Of course, there are countless other, smaller improvements which will be made to the world, but these are hard to anticipate. I have instead focused on large innovations which which could have huge impacts, broken down by category.
Note that the innovations in culture are prerequisites for many of the other innovations and that most innovations don’t fit neatly in a single category. Most are ideas that many are familiar with, but some are new.
Market Norms: Distaste for surge pricing, suspicion of big business, and a pessimistic view of the future are all symptoms of a greater misunderstanding about markets. A deeper understanding of how markets work (and where they don’t work) would greatly improve policy and voting decisions and hopefully give people a better outlook on our future.
Optimism: Essential for a society that wants to improve and take risks. Perhaps industrial literacy, optimistic Sci-Fi or requiring everyone to spend time perusing Our World in Data will help with this.
Acceptance of Experimentation: There are a lot of areas which would benefit from aggressive experimentation, such as education, policy, medicine, and charity. But there is often resistance to experimentation, seeing the possibility of harm as too great while ignoring the potential benefits. Culturally, we need to see the tremendous upside which careful, open experimentation provides. Ideally, an acceptance of experimentation at a large scale would encourage individuals to take more risks individually. In particular, a greater openness to experiment with living in new places is essential to several other innovations in this list.
Unbundled Relationships and Better Matching: Our social sphere dominates our well being. Yet unlike most other areas of life, we do not have an organized way of making friends or finding romantic partners. Of course, even the thought of an organized system of personal relationships seems strange. But, how sure are you that the current system of making friends is effective or equitable? And, like it or not, dating apps, friendship apps, and social media are already changing the rules of engagement and making them more systematic. I see many possibilities for building better relationships, from incorporating classes on relationships into education, to designing systems to ensure that no-one is lonely. One interesting idea is to develop norms for unbundled relationships: sets of friends or partners who meet specific needs in your life rather than a few "best friends". I hope to write more about this soon.
Improvement in Common Morality: If The Expanding Circle is to be believed, we can expect that our kindness towards other people as well as animals will increase. Additionally, developing flexible frameworks for morality which encourage consistent thinking can help us make better moral choices and have better debates.
Practical Public Goods Provision: Public goods problems are everywhere. Though we have some mechanisms for providing public goods at a local scale through governance, our current system seems to be slow or unable to provide clear successes such as infrastructure spending. Worse, local public goods can only take us so far since society faces challenges which require global solutions to many problems. What if there was a widely used, free-rider resistant, method for citizens to collectively fund CO2 emissions reduction? What if each artist could release their work freely to the public and receive compensation, without having to hide behind a paywall? The academic literature is filled with theory on public goods mechanisms, or experimental public goods games, but until recently we haven’t even tried to make decentralized public goods funding a reality. I have written about a first attempt at this here.
Global Redistribution: Yes, we already do this to some extent. But not nearly as much as we should, or in a very organized way. In a world where $5000 can save a life it is clear that a lot of human suffering can be prevented (and new economic value created) through better investment in the world’s poor.
Open Borders and Zoning Reform: More than simple redistribution, there are massive gains to be had from allowing more immigration to developed countries and better movement within countries. More details on the arguments for and against open borders can be found here.
Population Increase: If it is clear that having more people move to productive places helps the world by producing more innovation and utilizing economies of scale, why not also have more people? Not only is there a pro-natalist argument for increasing population, having more people can also benefit the current population. Many developed countries are expected to face demographic issues as there are not enough workers to care for their aging populations. Additionally, more people can generate new ideas and create larger (and more efficient) markets which incentivize new innovation. Even better, having more people increases diversity and allows new cultural niches to thrive, which promotes specialization and specialized innovation. Reductions in the cost and difficulty of IVF, cheap storage of egg and sperm cells, and cultural acceptance of these technologies will help.
Scientific Funding Reform: Not only is research a smaller portion of the federal budget today, but we are far too risk averse in how we allocate funds. Worse, science is probably slowing down due to a loss of low hanging fruit. The slowing of science suggests we need to be even better about how we allocate funding, and search more widely for new ideas, rather than fund easy wins.
Education Experiments: The possibility that Blooms Two Sigma phenomenon could be scaled up has driven much research into educational interventions. Unfortunately, these interventions have mostly run into the iron law of evaluation. Additionally, education policy is highly political, and even good interventions can be blocked from actual implementation. More freedom to experiment and responsive policy could change the lives of millions of children.
Maternal and Child Health Interventions: Early investments in maternal and child health can have large impacts later in life, especially in developing countries. A lot of interventions studied in this area would pay for themselves in terms of tax revenue, and have the additional benefit of increasing population.
Archipelago Communitiarianism: By allowing people to "vote with their feet" we can make governance more competitive and more specialized to suit peoples needs. Arguably, the U.S., E.U., India, and Switzerland already do this to some extent. But more directly applying the ideas of the archipelago to governance could allow for better, more diverse, governance. Working out how to do this right will be a major theme of this blog. See this series for an introduction.
Prediction Markets: A clearinghouse of information which gives everyone access to precise, decision-relevant judgements could have amazing benefits for business decisions, individual decisions, and policy decisions.
Space: The final frontier has an unfathomable amount of resources, if only we knew how to leave earth in an efficient way. There are huge opportunities for mining, colonization, and energy generation, which can help support populations on earth and beyond.
Agriculture: With a growing population we need to continue the amazing progress we have made improving agricultural efficiency. Vertical farming, desalination, improved nitrogen fixation, and hydroponics all hold promise for feeding the world. I have even more ambitious goals for future agriculture.
Shipping: Shipping is the lifeblood of global markets and essential to realizing efficiency gains from economies of scale. There are many ways to improve current shipping practices using self driving cars, blimps, drones, high speed rail, and supersonic transport.
Fusion: It’s proponents claim limitless, clean energy. I’m not so sure, but even a new type of power plant with similar density and LCOE to nuclear, without all of the branding issues, would be useful for generating clean energy.
3D printing: the typical vision for 3D printers has people making all of their products at home, but this ignores economies of scale. Rather, 3D printing factories can provide cheaper, higher quality manufacture for many household goods.
Automated Experiments: Like I noted before, science is slowing down, requiring more input for discoveries of similar impact. Part of this could be a Baumol effect where experiments performed by grad students and research are getting more expensive. What if we could run millions of tests simultaneously? We could literally test millions of different solar cell materials, cancer drugs, and superconductors to find the best ones to scale up. This vast amount of data will lead to new scientific insights as well, at a fraction of the cost of today’s experiments.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: New forms of entertainment and communication, accessible to everyone. Of course, infrastructure and norms will need to develop in these new spaces.
Cryonics: I am not even sure I would use cryonics if it had a good safety record today, but I certainly want people to have the option! Why is cryonics so exciting? because safe cryonics is, in a sense, time travel into the future. Not only can people use cryonics to escape their current time or hold out for a miracle cure, we can better allocate talent through time. Would also provide a major boost to interstellar travel. More on dealing with this quirky allocation problem in a future post.
Drug design: Pharmaceuticals are like magic, curing illness, fighting depression and eliminating pain. But there is a lot of room to improve current pharmaceuticals. Additionally, there are a lot of drug categories which have barely been explored. What if a drug could safely reduce sleep need, increasing the hours in a day a person could spend on leisure (more on this later.)? What about drugs which increase happiness or productivity? New computational methods and automated experiments could vastly increase the quality and applications of pharmaceuticals.
Bioreactors and Directed Evolution: With so many designer drugs, we will need a way to manufacture these compounds efficiently. Luckily, we already have tools for manipulating yeast and bacteria to make a variety of complex chemical products.
Genetic Modification: Like drugs, this will have immediate applications in preventing or curing disease, but in the longer term, what if we changed our biology to better suit our needs?
Brain Stimulation: This includes TCMS, transcranial pulsed ultrasound, and electrical brain stimulation. I will admit that the current state of the research seems suspicious since it is hard to have proper placebo controlled studies. But the possibilities for general purpose treatment of mental illness and manipulation of mental states are too exciting to pass up.
Domestication of Diseases: What if, rather than work to prevent diseases or mitigate pandemics, we took an active role in cultivating pathogens? By selectively spreading mild forms of similar pathogens and evolving viruses to lower virulence, we can create a world where we live alongside diseases. Essentially, we would "domesticate" pathogens by breeding for lower virulence.
AI: Developing scalable, safe AI would be exciting for doing menial tasks and making certain services cheap. But I am more interested in what we do with AI after it has become a common tool for basic tasks. Extremely cheap entertainment, AI run experiments, and AI based governance all have exciting possibilities (and dangers).
Brain Emulations: Perhaps the easiest way to achieve AI would be to make a copy of the human brain and just run it faster. Brains-on-computers have a lot of interesting implications discussed in Age of Em. This would entirely change the way we do things, but the implications are too vast to discuss here.
Brain Computer Interfaces: These enable a new domain for us to iterate on, better understanding the intricacies of the brain and better aligning us with our technology. This could lead to new, better forms of entertainment and communication. Of course, new privacy issues abound.
Better, Widely Accepted, Cryptography: Privacy is already a big issue today. Cultural acceptance of privacy concerns, higher demand for secure devices, anonymous personal ID systems, and greater use of cryptocurrency-based finance will all help mitigate many privacy concerns.